The Challenges of Discipleship for Independent Thinkers

Robert A. ReesSalt Lake City – Why do artists, scholars, and independent thinkers stay in the Mormon faith tradition, which has a known history of censuring art, rejecting scholarship, and suppressing dissent?

In a new book, Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons, edited by retired UCLA professor Robert A. Rees, twenty scholars—among them poets, playwrights, novelists, historians, and scientists—discuss their attempt to walk the line between faith and rationality, conformity and freedom. They all continue to thrive within the LDS tradition, while they also harbor reservations about doctrines and policies.

According to Rees, “Deciding whether to stay in or leave one’s faith tradition is among the most difficult and soul-wrenching decisions a person can face. There are those who feel firmly rooted in their religion for a lifetime; others bolt from a church, temple, or mosque suddenly, impulsively, and ultimately; still others lapse. All religions have a problem with retention; there are many reasons why people stay in a religion. Not all reasons for staying are motivated by faith and loyalty nor all those for leaving motivated by faithlessness and disloyalty.”

Mormonism presents unique problems for the independent-minded, as sociologist Armand L. Mauss states when he says, “The admonition ‘follow the prophet’ is given with increasing frequency in the Mormon Church. Which is then transformed into a ritualistic slogan or mantra intended to stifle questions and differences of opinion and does not accord with a reasonable reading of the LDS scriptural account of the war in heaven where clearly agency was established prior to obedience among the laws on which our Plan of Salvation operates. When employed for leverage by overzealous leaders, the Church operates like any other human institution and is entitled only to the same presumption of qualified loyalty that we give other human institutions.”

Yet Mauss concludes, “My understanding of human institutions and how they work has provided me with a kind of immunity to disillusionment.”

Children’s justice advocate Grethe Peterson writes of the tensions she feels in the LDS tradition: “The Church’s position on homosexuality raises fundamental questions for me about how some define God’s love and Christ’s admonition ‘to love your neighbor as yourself.’ Sexuality is a private issue, but when sexual orientation results in citizens being discriminated against, something is wrong. With the question of gay marriage, this issue is taking on a more complicated dimension.”

When it comes to her relationship with God, Peterson feels that she has been overwhelmingly supported in her faith quest by the Mormon Church. “I am a better person,” she writes, both for being in the Church and “for having worked through the tenets of the Church on my own,” coming to her own conclusions about things instead of believing implicitly.

Others, such as attorney Morris A. Thurston, find their emotional attachment to their LDS heritage as the strongest reason to retain their ties to the Church. Thurston writes about sitting in the same choir seats, 150 years after his great-great-grandfather did, at the Kirtland Temple near Cleveland, Ohio, and singing The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning. “My eyes filled with tears as I thought about the challenges those people were about to face but could not have predicted—being driven out of [Ohio and] Missouri, losing their prophet to mob violence, and being asked to leave their homes in Nauvoo for the wilderness of the west.”

Others, such as J. Frederick “Toby” Pingree, a software company CFO, are more direct in confronting the intellectual dissonance they encounter in the Church over the retention of the doctrine of polygamy (no longer practiced, but still believed in) and the repression of independent thought, even as they simultaneously reach out to like-minded Mormons for support.

Molly Bennion, a Seattle attorney, mourns as she watches friends leave the faith. Her choice to stay is not motivated by what she does not believe, she writes, but because of what she does believe. She believes in God, Joseph Smith, and in philanthropic service. These are reasons to stay, and the contradictions and incongruities pale in comparison to the opportunities for belief and service, according to Bennion.

Other contributors include Lavina Fielding Anderson, excommunicated in 1993, yet who nevertheless continues to attend Church faithfully; former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Mary Lythgoe Bradford; BYU biologist and promoter of homosexual tolerance, William Bradshaw; Columbia University historian Claudia L. Bushman; retired brain surgeon Fred Christensen; popular young adult novelist Lael Littke; former University of Utah President Chase Peterson; pharmaceutical researcher Gregory A. Prince; playwright Thomas F. Rogers; Community of Christ (RLDS) political scientist William D. Russell; and women’s history writer Cherry Bushman Silver.

Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons
Robert A. Rees, editor
ISBN: 978-1-56085-213-1
126 pp. hardback $24. 95